H-2 Oh My!
by Jonathan Talbot

Our nation's waters are under attack. According to the EPA, nearly half of the wells and all of the surface streams in the country were contaminated by agricultural pollutants in 1990.[1] At some time during 1993 and 1994 one of every five Americans turned on their taps and drank water that was contaminated with feces, radiation, lead, or dangerous parasites.[2] A third of the rivers and nearly half of the lakes assessed by the states remain unhealthy for drinking, swimming, or fishing because of nonpoint pollution.[3] One hundred million Americans live in areas that fail to meet standards set by the Clean Water Act.[4] The situation seems bleak. Fortunately, everyone in this country can make a difference in the quality of water in their rivers and lakes by reducing their consumption of the products of industrial animal agriculture, because it is this activity which is so much responsible for the scope of these problems.

Nearly half of nonfarmers and a quarter of farmers blame business and industry for water pollution as a whole, despite the fact that the Clean Water Act of 1972 has successfully dealt with many 'point' sources of pollution, such as industrial emissions.[5] Nonpoint source pollution, such as that from agriculture, is now the principle threat to surface and ground water quality in the United States.[5] Pesticides, fertilizers, manures and unchecked soil erosion contaminate aquifers and pollute lakes, rivers, and estuaries. As the majority of agricultural land is used to support industrial animal agriculture[6] rather than to directly produce food for human consumption, much of this pollution is preventable. In fact, factory farming impairs more miles of U.S. rivers than all other industry sources combined.[7]

Microbial contamination of water is easily traceable to the livestock industry. In addition to concentrated nutrients and heavy metals, livestock manures contain pathogenic parasites, bacteria, and viruses which can harm and even kill humans and wildlife. Pathogenic water-borne organisms in manures include salmonella, listeria, vibrio, brucella, cryptosporidium, coxiella, chlamydia, and mycoplasma.8 Wells and surface waters near improperly managed feedlots are frequently contaminated with coliform bacteria, which are often used as indicators of the presence of pathogenic microorganisms.[8] In Iowa, over 45% of rural wells tested by the state were contaminated with coliform bacteria; in one area 75% of the wells were contaminated.[9]

The EPA reports that 1,000 water treatment systems serving 13 million people are outdated and do not screen for cryptosporidium and other harmful contaminants. The NRDC reports that 45 million people drink water from treatment systems contaminated with cryptosporidium in recent years.[10] Cryptosporidium from calf waste was blamed for a 1993 outbreak in Milwaukee that left over 400,000 persons sick and more than 100 people dead.[11] Manure has contaminated groundwater in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin and is a concern in many other states with significant livestock industries.[11] Nationally, 1,785 waterbodies in 39 states were impaired by feedlots in 1993, as were 60,000 miles of streams in 1984.[11] Excrement from livestock could be reduced by nearly half a trillion pounds a year if the U.S. as a whole reduced their flesh consumption by just one day a week.[12]

The irrigation necessary for massive feed grain cropping has washed more naturally-occurring selenium and other dangerous chemicals out of the soil and into our water in several decades than rainfall alone could have done in centuries. Selenium is very poisonous at high concentrations, and death, grotesque deformities, and reproductive failure are evident in fish, birds, and other wildlife exposed to toxic-laden agricultural drainage water. Between 1985 and 1989, lethal or hazardous concentrations of selenium were discovered at 22 different wildlife sites, including the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge and Nevada's Stillwater Wildife Refuge. The high concentrations of selenium accumulated from irrigation water. Humans face risks as the toxins move up the food chain.[13]

Nutrient pollution of water bodies is the most visible assault on our nation's water, originating in the colossal amounts of synthetic fertilizer and animal wastes associated with livestock. Nationwide, 22.4 million nutrient tons of fertilizer are used on farms annually,[14] and feedlot operations release additional hundreds of millions of tons of manures.[15] Manures contain approximately 75% of the nitrogen, 80% of the phosphorous, and 85% of the potassium originally in animal feeds.[16] Disposal of manure is regulated through a myriad of state and local regulations applied in a nationally haphazard manner.[17] Manure is commonly spread on agricultural fields as natural fertilizer, but there is simply not enough agricultural land to absorb all the concentrated nutrients from livestock manures. The estimated 11.5 million tons of manure generated last year by North Carolina's hog industry could have covered 100,000 acres to a depth of 1 inch.[18]

Animal wastes from factory farms, feedlots and dairies regularly exceed market demand for manure fertilizer for fields, necessitating stockpiling of manures in vast 'lagoons,' which may or may not be lined, and are easily subject to accidental breach or overflow.[19] In 1995, a lagoon holding hog manure in North Carolina released 25 million gallons of watery waste from 10,000 hogs, which poured over soybean and tobacco fields and into nearby waters. More than 3,000 fish died when the torrent reached the New River.[20] Though this accident is uncommon, one N.C. State University report estimates that as many as half of existing lagoons--perhaps hundreds--are leaking badly enough to contaminate groundwater. The problem is systemic, not anecdotal.[21]

The concentrated nutrients in livestock wastes, even when applied to land to be reabsorbed, may cause eutrophication of waters, acidification of soils, and contamination of drinking water. Manure is commonly spread too heavily on agricultural land, exceeding the soil's ability to incorporate nutrients. Nitrogen from wastes and fertilizers is converted into ammonia and nitrates, and may leach into ground and surface water, polluting wells, and contaminating rivers and streams.[22] Phosphorous is largely tied to soil particles and leaves the fields through erosion, and is, therefore, primarily a surface water pollution problem.[23]

Runoff of fertilizer and manures may transport nutrients directly into our waters and cause eutrophication. High nutrient levels lead to algal blooms which prevent light from reaching submerged aquatic vegetation, depleting oxygen needed by other organisms, and killing off both extant individuals and nursery habitat for fish and shellfish.[24] Nitrogen which is emitted from fertilizers or manures as gases may fall to the earth as acid rain, acidifying both water and soils.

Feedlot discharges in some parts of the U.S. have raised nitrate levels in well water so high that parents must look to other water sources when making formula for their infants for fear of methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. Nitrates in well water can also cause irreversible nervous system impairments and cancer in children and infants.[25] These problems are both more severe and more common in areas where feedlots are concentrated.[26] Forty percent of the wells in the Chino Basin in California now have unacceptable nitrate contamination, mostly due to dairy operations.[27] In 1991, 50 percent of wells tested in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, had nitrate concentrations greater than EPA maximum standards for drinking water, due to high animal density.[28] Nitrates have been found in groundwater exceeding 100 mg/l beneath several poultry houses in Delaware.[29] More than half of our country's community water systems and rural wells contain nitrates found in fertilizers.[30] Twenty to twenty-five percent of the private wells tested in some agricultural states have exceeded the EPA's health standards for nitrates.[31]

Herbicides also cause trouble for wildlife and humans, and cause massive fish kills. Every spring, 150 million pounds of atrazine, cyanazine, simaxine, alachlor, and metoalachlor are applied to soybeans and corn growing in the Corn Belt. Rains and irrigation carry a significant portion of these chemicals into the drinking water of 14.1 million Corn Belt residents. The manufacturers of these chemicals admit that these five chemicals cause nine different types of cancer, myriad birth defects, and genetic mutations. Despite this knowledge, legally allowable levels of contamination have been set only for atrazine, alachlor, and simazine. Any level of contamination by either metoalachlor or cyanazine, no matter how high, is legal. None of the five are removed by conventional drinking water treatments. In 1993, up to 16,000 pounds per day of these herbicides were flowing down the Mississippi.[32]

These herbicides in drinking water expose more than 3.5 million people to ten times the federal standard for cancer risk in places such as Columbus, OH, Indianapolis, IN, Kansas City, MO, Springfield, IL, Cedar Rapids, IA, and Omaha, NB. Another 400,000 residents in 98 small rural communities face cancer risks from 10 to 116 times the federal standard.[32] Agricultural pesticides have appeared in the groundwater of twenty-three states.[33] Fish kills from high pesticide use are particularly common in the Corn Belt, as are pesticide concentrations that exceed human health-based drinking water standards.[34] Reducing animal agriculture could reduce pesticide contamination.

Even the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology agrees that most of the herbicide pollution of water so prevalent in the Midwest is attributable to our nation's animal agriculture industry.[35] The majority of detections of pesticides in both ground and surface water in the United States involve a limited number of herbicides used extensively in corn and soybean production.[36] Sixty-one percent of the total herbicides used in U.S. agriculture are applied to corn and soybeans,[37] and 90% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn grown are fed to livestock.[38]

Billions of dollars have been spent in the last two decades in the U.S. to clean up surface drinking-water sources-rivers and lakes.[39] It is time to assert our right to safe waters. Reducing consumption of the products of our industrial animal agricultural system has the potential to decrease synthetic herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer use, manure production, irrigation, and the resultant microbial, heavy metal, nutrient, and synthetic chemical pollution of our water. When you sit down to eat, stand up for the environment!

[Jonathan Talbot would like to thank the EarthSave Foundation, Santa Cruz, CA, for funding the research from which this article was written.]


  1. "National Forum on Nonpoint Source Pollution," National Geographic Society, May 1995.

  2. World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, "American Agenda," June 1, 1995.

  3. Water: A Story of Hope, Terrene Institute, 1717 K Street N.W., Suite 801, Washington, D.C. 20006.

  4. Dillinghman, Maud. "The E EPA Index," E: The Environmental Magazine, June 1995, Volume VI, No. 3, p.40

  5. "National Forum on Nonpoint Source Pollution"

  6. Diamond, Harvey. Your Heart, Your Planet, Santa Monica, Hay House, Inc., 1990, p. 87.

  7. Ibid, p. 85.

  8. "Hog Wash: Factory Farm Giveaways in Clean Water Act Proposals," Natural Resources Defense Council and International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, July 1995, p.4.

  9. Ibid, p2.

  10. World News Tonight, June 1, 1995.

  11. "Hog Wash," p.2.

  12. Diamond, p. 147.

  13. Postel, Sandra. "Water for Agriculture: Facing the Limits," Worldwatch Paper 93, published by Worldwatch Institute, December 1989, p. 16-18.

  14. "National Forum on Nonpoint Source Pollution"

  15. "Hog Wash," i.

  16. Ibid, p. 3.

  17. Pagano, A.P. and Abdalla, C.W., Clustering in Animal Agriculture: Economic Trends and Policy, in Proceedings of the Great Plains Animal Waste conference on Confined Animal Production and Water Quality, Balancing Animal Production and the Environment, Storm, D.E., and Casey, K.G., Eds., National Cattlemen's Association, Englewood, Colorado, 1994.

  18. Warrick, Joby, "Boss Hog," The News and Observer , Raleigh, North Carolina Friday, March 3, 1995.

  19. "Hog Wash,", i.

  20. from Ronald Smothers, N.Y. Times News Service, c.1995

  21. Warrick, Joby, and Stith, Pat, "Boss Hog: New studies show that lagoons are leaking," The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, Sunday, February 19, 1995.

  22. Office of Technology Assessment Report to Congress, as reported in "Pollution of Ground Water Called Irreversible," Des Moines Register 31 May 1990. "Iowa Officials Express Alarm Over Pollution Study," Des Moines Register, 12 Jan 1990.

  23. "Hog Wash," p.4.

  24. Ibid, p.3.

  25. Brough, Holly B., and Durning, Allan B., "Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment," Worldwatch Paper 103, by Worldwatch Institute, July 1991, p.19-20.

  26. "Hog Wash," p.2.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Ibid, p.3.

  29. Ibid, p.2-3.

  30. "National Forum on Nonpoint Source Pollution"

  31. Jacobson, Michael et al. Safe Food, CSPI, p.138.

  32. "The Toxic Tap:Pesticides in Drinking Water," Safe Food News, Winter 95, by Safe Food Inc., p.5.

  33. Elkington,John, Hailes, Julia, and Makower, Joel. The Green Consumer New York, Penguin Books, 1990, 84.

  34. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, Pesticides in Surface and Ground Water.

  35. Brough and Durning, p.16-17.

  36. CAST, Pesticides in Surface and Ground Water.

  37. Fox, Michael, and Wiswall, Nancy The Hidden Costs of Beef Washington, D.C.: Humane Society of the United States, 1989, p.25-26.

  38. USDA, Agricultural Statistics 1989, 31, Table 40: "Corn: Supply and Disappearance, United States, 1974-88," 125, table 168: "Soybeans: Supply and Disappearance, United States, 1974-88," (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1989). Also, Robbins, John. May All be Fed: Diet for a New World, Avon Books, N.Y., 1992, p.236.

  39. Ehrlich and Ehrlich, Healing the Planet, Addison-Wesley, 1991, p. 140.

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